(Soundbite of music)
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Marilyn Miller was one of the most adored and charismatic Broadway musical stars of the 1920s and 30s. She also had a brief movie career before her death in 1936 at the age of 37. Warner Archives has just released two of her three movies on DVD.
Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has this review.
(Soundbite of song, "Look for the Silver Lining")
Ms. MARILYN MILLER (Musical-comedy star): (Singing) Look for the silver lining when e'er a cloud appears in the blue.
LLOYD SCHWARTZ: That was the voice of the great musical-comedy star Marilyn Miller in the 1929 movie version of her first starring Broadway vehicle, "Sally," singing the Jerome Kern song that became her theme song.
Miller often played Cinderella roles: Sally was a waitress and dishwasher who loses her job but ends up as a Broadway star and marrying a millionaire.
Miller was one of the first Broadway celebrities I ever heard about, though she died before I was born. My mother had seen her on the stage and loved her. When I was little, she used to sing me one of the other Kern songs Miller made famous, "Who?" in which a series of questions Who stole my heart away? Who makes me dream all day? is finally answered by - who? No one but you. And she would point her finger at my nose. So without ever seeing Marilyn Miller, I loved her too.
(Soundbite of song, "Who Stole My Heart Away?")
Ms. MILLER: (Singing) Who stole my heart away and who makes me dream all day? Dreams I know can never come true. Seems as though I'll ever be blue. Who...
SCHWARTZ: Nearly a decade after her death, Miller figured as a major character in a couple of 1940s biopics. One was the sappy "Look For the Silver Lining," in which June Haver plays Miller, but gangly Ray Bolger steals the picture as her friend and dance partner.
The other was MGM's all-star "Till the Clouds Roll By," a fictionalized biography of Jerome Kern, who actually led a relatively uneventful life. The dramatic climax is the tantrum Kern's young niece throws because she's replaced in a show by Marilyn Miller who's played by Judy Garland Garland was especially memorable singing "Look For the Silver Lining."
(Soundbite of song, "Look For the Silver Lining")
Ms. JUDY GARLAND (Actress, singer): (Singing) As I wash my dishes, I'll be following a plan, till I see the brightness in every pot and pan. I am sure this point of view will ease the daily grind, so I'll keep repeating in my mind. Look for the silver lining when e'er a cloud appears in the blue.
SCHWARTZ: Two of Miller's three movies, "Sally" and "Sunny," have just been released on Warner Archives, a new series that now has some 400 titles never before available on DVD. You can see that Miller wasn't a perfect fit for film.
For one thing, she sings with a trained, almost operatic voice that seems disconnected from her character's down-to-earth speaking voice, a quality designed more for a theater, where vocal projection was more important than in film, where amplified sound and intimate close-ups are more suited to realism than theatrical stylization.
The primitive staging and camera-work with which Broadway musicals were first transferred to the big screen further compromise plausibility. Miller's dancing, though, both tap and toe, comes off better, especially in her comedic numbers, and she's a touching actress. Her bright voice, canny phrasing, endearing smile, and affecting tears can still light up the screen.
Ms. MILLER: All my life, as long as I can remember, I've wanted to dance. There was an old woman who taught me how to first dance when I was in the orphans home. Then later, when I was working in restaurants and washing dishes, then as a waitress, I kept practicing all the time, telling myself I'd be a great dancer some day. Then when I lost my last job, I told myself I'd starve before I'd be a waitress again. I'm not even a waitress here.
SCHWARTZ: Reading about Marilyn Miller, I found several surprising items. The name Marilyn, for example which Miller made up from her own given name, Mary, and her mother's name, Lynn had apparently been quite rare until Miller's stardom made it one of this country's most popular girl's names.
Decades later, Ben Lyon, a Twentieth Century Fox executive and former leading man who co-starred with Miller and W.C. Fields in Miller's last and best movie, "Her Majesty, Love," signed up another pretty blond actress, Norma Jean Baker, who reminded him of Miller, and urged her to change her name to Marilyn.
Both Marilyns had problems with their marriages and with substance abuse, and both died very young Monroe at 36 and Miller at 37, from complications of a chronic sinus infection.
Marilyn Monroe's films will always keep her memory alive. Marilyn Miller didn't live far enough into the movie era to appear in films that would do the same for her.
DAVIES: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed two films starring Marilyn Miller that have been released on the Warner Archives label.
(Soundbite of song, "Who Stole My Heart Away?")
Ms. MILLER: (Singing) Who stole my heart away? And who makes me dream all day? Dreams I know can never come true. Seems as though I'll ever be blue. Who means my happiness...
DAVIES: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. And you can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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